Rudy Giuliani splurged on Florida, lavishing time and money on a high-risk gamble that the state would vault him to the Republican presidential nomination.
Five days before his make-or-break primary, all that last year's national front-runner has to show for the love he's given the Sunshine State is a diminished standing.
"We are gaining support. I think you'll see that over the next few days," Giuliani insisted Wednesday, hours before a new poll showed him trailing John McCain and Mitt Romney.
Florida was supposed to be "Rudy Country." His game plan called for playing down earlier-voting states for a laser focus on Florida and its 57-delegate prize. He pumped more than $3 million into advertising and planted himself here, counting on a win to give him unbeatable momentum going into the voting by nearly two dozen states on Feb. 5. The nomination was to follow.
All that now is in danger.
McCain and Romney grabbed headlines by winning states that voted earlier; Giuliani won nothing and stayed out of the picture. Polls this week, even in his home state of New York, an expected bulwark for him on Feb. 5, showed him tied or behind. His once huge advantage in California is no more, either.
In Florida, a new poll shows McCain and Romney neck-and-neck for the lead, with 25 percent and 23 percent, while Giuliani and Mike Huckabee trail at 15 percent. More than one-fourth of the likely voters surveyed between Sunday and Tuesday — 27 percent — said they still may change their minds. The poll was sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times, The Miami Herald and Bay News 9.
Undeterred, Giuliani said, "We are going to accomplish it against the odds."
He argued that his message just needs a little more time to sink in. He's the only Republican supporting a national catastrophic insurance fund important to many hurricane-weary and cash-strapped Floridians, he has what he calls the largest tax-cut proposal of any candidate and says he has the most relevant government experience.
As he told a couple of hundred people at a Boca Raton rally on Thursday, ahead of the evening GOP debate here: "I'm your candidate because I'll get it done... I'm the candidate that is good on all of these things, national security and economic security."
It's possible that absentee and early voters could give Giuliani a bump on Tuesday. He has get-out-the-vote programs catering to both. He's also counting on a large number of New York retirees in Florida to carry him to victory, though its unclear how many are registered to vote, let alone as a Republican.
This isn't the first time Giuliani has tried to compete, only to hit a rocky patch.
He peppered Iowans with mailed campaign literature and some $300,000 in radio advertisements, only to finish sixth behind little-known Texas Rep. Ron Paul in the leadoff contest. New Hampshire's primary proved embarrassing as well with more than $3 million spent on ads and mail and countless visits — and a fourth-place showing.
"Everywhere this guy has gone, he's faded," said GOP strategist Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster.
As polls shifted, Giuliani has changed his story on Florida's role.
"It's all about Florida," he said Monday. Now, his campaign says the state is merely "important" — though it's unclear whether he has the money to be competitive later.
Senior aides have forgone paychecks this month. Giuliani was getting beat 2-1 earlier this week in TV-ad spending in several of the state's expensive media markets; he poured more money to his buys late Wednesday, which may have brought him to parity.
Alone for weeks in Florida, Giuliani taunted his opponents Saturday as they competed in South Carolina. "We're waiting for you," he said then.
Judging from the last few days, he would just as soon have them leave again.
Giuliani faced crowds that were a bit flat and small earlier this week. He got polite applause in a large but half-empty community hall in Sun City Center, where retirement is the local industry. And only a few dozen people showed up at a banquet facility near downtown Orlando.
He's taken precious time away from campaigning to collect campaign cash, flying to New York Tuesday and making calls. This left his schedule light — only four public events in three days.
Earlier this week, Giuliani's campaign also appeared to squander a golden opportunity when McCain said he does not support the federally backed catastrophic insurance fund. Instead of seizing on the comment himself, Giuliani left it to aides and surrogates who got little attention. He rolled out an advertisement striking a contrast with the Arizona senator _ but it didn't name McCain and was initially only aimed for the Internet. On Thursday, his campaign announced the spot would, indeed, be broadcast on TV.
At one point this week, Giuliani made an unscheduled visit to the Daytona International Speedway for a photo op of the former mayor speeding in circles in his campaign bus around the racetrack inside the empty stadium, perhaps an almost too-perfect metaphor for his effort here.
Wednesday in Estero, he even gave the impression of being bored with his own message. "I've given this lecture on leadership so many times, I could probably do it in my sleep," he said to laughter.
By evening, though, his campaign staged a rally that served as an unexpected counterpoint to the bad news.
About 1,000 people filled a plaza along Naples' main street and crammed an adjacent Irish pub where Giuliani was just supposed to shake a few hands and make remarks.
It turned out to be the largest, most welcoming crowd Giuliani drew all week, though a request for a show of hands from an introductory speaker revealed that a sizable portion was from New York. Despite some testy feelings about a long wait, people cheered repeatedly and mobbed the restaurant to try to get to him.
The enthusiasm had Giuliani unusually animated. He seemed to argue, without saying it directly, that the polling is bogus.
"We're going to surprise everyone," he shouted into a microphone, standing among the restaurants' outdoor tables. "And we're going to win big here. Florida is going to catapult us to the nomination because Florida is going to vote in a way that I think people don't even realize."